Magic, Martyrs, and Motorcycles: I Hear Your Voice by Kim Young-ha

  • onSeptember 25, 2017
  • Vol.37 Autumn 2017
  • byJessie Chaffee
I Hear Your Voice
Tr. Krys Lee

Kim Young-ha’s I Hear Your Voice is a haunting, visceral portrait of friendship, belief, and betrayal. The book opens with the tale of a magician able to restore life to a boy whose body has been violently rent apart. Are we witnessing magic or a con man’s sleight of hand? This question is at the heart of the novel, which traces the rise and fall of the mythical and charismatic figure of Jae, as told by his close friend and fellow outcast, Donggyu.

Born in the bathroom of a bus terminal filled with both believers and those who manipulate belief—“hoarse-throated religious fanatics,” “a cult leader,” “the fake monk who begged while tapping at a wooden gong”—Jae is saved from sure death by Mama Pig, only to be deserted by her in adolescence, shipped off to an orphanage where punishments include solitary confinement, and then funneled into the communities of youth living in Seoul’s underworld, impoverished and ignored, where the violence and cruelty they are fleeing often gets reenacted.

Though Jae’s journey is dominated by alienation and abandonment, he has a miraculous gift for empathy. When, at age three, Donggyu becomes mute, it is only Jae who understands “the words slowed up inside me that wouldn’t rush past my lips, that stayed petrified like stalactites.” The intensity and complexity of the boys’ friendship is conveyed in Jae’s role as interpreter: Is he the translator of his friend’s desires or their architect? Is he Donggyu’s shadow or vice versa?

In adolescence, Jae develops the ability to intuit and absorb the pain of all those around him:


“It feels like someone is squeezing my heart. . . . It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s an object, machine, animal, or human. If a being experiences extreme suffering, I feel it too.”


Young runaways and rebels who “sensed that Jae identified with their suffering” become his followers, and he finds his ultimate role as the head of an underground motorcycle gang. His calling, he feels, is to lead these youth and to, like an artist “taking a brush to the streets,” create a vast painting drawn by the movements of their motorcycles that will make the world recognize them. Kim Young-ha’s gorgeous, propulsive descriptions, beautifully translated by Krys Lee, capture the controlled chaos of the gangs’ rides, echoing Jae’s vision of the artistry of their choreography.

As Jae’s influence grows, so does Donggyu’s mistrust of him. Early in the novel, Jae sets up two mirrors facing each other, with the purpose, he explains, of capturing the devil. In taking his friend’s place between the mirrors, Donggyu realizes, “The only object reflected in a mirror is the self; and a person who persists in continuously gazing at himself is actually looking at the devil.” Is Jae a prophet or a power-monger high on his own reflection?

The meaning encoded in the book’s structure emerges late in the narrative when, following Jae’s ascent, the perspective shifts from Donggyu to a local police officer who, in his control of “violence under the guise of legalized violence,” becomes both a foil for and potential reflection of Jae. Like Jae’s followers, the officer becomes obsessed with the myth surrounding the teen and begins to participate in its creation. However, it is only in the novel’s final brilliant narrative turn that the true scribe of this “Book of Jae” is revealed and, with it, the reason behind the story’s telling.

I Hear Your Voice masterfully explores the brutality of inequality, the long tail of violence, and the contradictory nature of friendship. Above all, it is a book about the power and limitations of compassion. In one of his earliest memories, Donggyu recalls Jae “teetering on a dining chair with his arms outstretched.” Inevitably, Jae falls, pinning Donggyu “down inside fear and pain.” Throughout the novel, this happens again and again—Jae is always leaping and Donggyu is always trying to catch him, compassion outweighing his desire for self-preservation. And Jae himself embodies the furthest reaches of this compassion. Magician or no, he takes on the pain of people who the world has actively made invisible.

None of the central characters in the novel are clean-cut heroes or villains—they betray each other, they hurt themselves and others, they perpetrate the violence they have suffered—but, like Jae, Kim Young-ha approaches their stories with a compassion that is palpable, granting them their full humanity and never shying away from the depth and complexity of their pain. And in doing so, he refuses to participate in what Jae contends to be the greatest evil: “ignoring pain . . . not doing anything about someone’s cries. The world of sin begins there.” 


by Jessie Chaffee
Author, Florence in Ecstasy

Author's Profile

The English editions of Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy MyselfYour Republic Is Calling You, and Black Flower were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who will also publish his latest book in 2017. Kim was a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2003, and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times from 2013 to 2014. His books have appeared in more than twelve languages.